It's autumn. You know the routine: School starts, leaves fall, and people start fighting about banned books. Why should 2009 be different from any other year?
Banned Books Week, primarily sponsored by the American Library Association, takes place this time each year and one of the ways you know it's here is that you start seeing a lot of stirring manifestos on readers' rights. The interesting thing, however, is that as a society we simply don't agree as to what those rights are – particularly when it comes to school libraries.
Some parents don't want the reading choices of their children to be censored by other parents – but those other parents say they do have the right to keep certain books away from their kids.
If you read Huffington Post today, you'll see a prime example of the kind of hard choices schools must make these days. Huffington Post is championing Ellen Hopkins, author of novels "Glass" and "Crank," which are based on her daughter's past addiction to crystal meth. Hopkins, who was banned from speaking at an Oklahoma middle school because the school questioned the appropriateness of her subject matter, says she has heard from thousands of readers (including middle schoolers) that her books have helped to turn them away from drugs. Which is exactly why some other parents don't want them banned.
Huffington Post has published a poem by Hopkins called "Manifesto." It begins:
To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.
For the other side of the case, however, see Friday's Wall Street Journal. An editorial by Mitchel Muncy argues that there are actually few if any banned books in this country (if banned means "something like 'made dangerous or difficult for the average person to obtain.' ") As Muncy points out, "If a book isn't available at one library or bookstore, it's certainly available at another. Not even the most committed civil libertarian demands that every book be immediately available everywhere on request."
As for the ALA, Muncy adds, "There's something odd about a national organization with a $54 million budget and 67,000 members reacting so zealously against a few unorganized, law-abiding parents whose efforts, by any sensible standard, are hopelessly ineffective." (Ineffective because the vast majority of the books that parents complain about and hope to see removed from their children's schools do not end up being removed.)
To complain about parents who challenge books, Muncy argues, is to complain that a group of law-abiding citizens are exercising their own right to free speech and thought.
Probably the the truth of the matter is that both sides of this fight are fortunate to have as many articulate and impassioned spokespeople as they do. Let's hope that will continue to be the case for many generations to come, – because that's at least how long we're likely to continue arguing about this.